REVIEW: Chaos Walking (2021)

Daisy Ridley as Viola and Tom Holland as Todd Hewitt in Doug Liman’s CHAOS WALKING — Photo: Lionsgate.

Directed by Doug Liman — Screenplay by Patrick Ness & Christopher Ford.

On paper, this should be a huge hit. It’s a science-fiction action film starring Tom Holland of Spider-Man fame and Daisy Ridley of Star Wars fame, they are surrounded by a more than capable cast including the incredible Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round), and the film was directed by Edge of Tomorrow‘s Doug Liman. And yet this is a film that has been through quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It has gone through several rounds of rewrites and expensive reshoots, and it, reportedly, was the victim of poor reception at test screenings. After having had its release delayed several times, Chaos Walking is now here, but while it has all the ingredients of a film made for me, it just doesn’t work as a complete package.

Based on the Patrick Ness science-fiction young adult novel titled The Knife of Never Letting Go, Doug Liman’s Chaos Walking takes place in the year 2257 on the planet known only as The New World. Here, in the town known as Prentisstown, we meet Todd Hewitt (played by Tom Holland) and his dog. Todd was born on this planet, where every man’s thoughts are on display for all to see and hear. Men have to train themselves to control their own thoughts or risk having everyone know their deepest and darkest secrets. Thoughts can also be weaponized, if your self-control is strong enough. Mayor Prentiss (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is one of the most powerful men in town precisely because of his ability to conjure up vivid images simply through the mastering of what the New World’s inhabitants call ‘the Noise.’

Early on in the film, a space shuttle crash lands on the planet and Viola (played by Daisy Ridley) is the only survivor. When she is apprehended by the people of Prentisstown, she learns that she is the only woman there. Mayor Prentiss explains that women’s thoughts were not affected by the planet and that they were killed long ago by dangerous extra-terrestrials referred to as the ‘Spackle.’ But the people of Prentisstown do not seem friendly to their female visitor, and soon she and Todd must try to escape the community and look for a safe way for Viola to return to the spaceship she calls home.

Since I knew how long and difficult Chaos Walking‘s journey to its final release had been, I, admittedly, was nervous about the state of the final product. After all, even though it ought to work on paper, something must’ve clearly been amiss with the film, for it to have gone through extensive rewrites and reshoots, right? Well, yeah. To be perfectly frank, I think one of the biggest problems with the film is the pacing of the film. The fact of the matter is that the film struggled to hold my attention once Todd and Viola left Prentisstown. There is certainly a lot of walking and some of the protagonist’s thoughts are just really repetitive. The first act is admittedly passable, but then it feels like the narrative got lost in the woods of the New World in the second act, and once the action truly picked up again it did feel like it was too little too late.

It’s also the kind of movie that is wasteful of its splendid cast. This feels particularly true with David Oyelowo, but, really, a lot of these characters feel thinly written or one-dimensional. The central performances aren’t bad, but they aren’t particularly good either. The most interesting thing about the characters in the film is that Mads Mikkelsen’s character wears this extravagant costume that put a big grin on my face. The film does attempt to establish some kind of connection between Ridley and Holland, but I don’t think that worked for the film.

The one thing, however, that I absolutely do think works is the visualization of thoughts. This is the film’s gimmick, and if this had fallen flat on its face, then the film would have as well. I thought there were some really cool moments, such as when Mads Mikkelsen’s character creates a barrier by, essentially, thinking out loud, or when Tom Holland’s character thinks of a snake so intensely that it looks like a snake is attacking another character. It’s not perfect, though. Sometimes it would’ve been nice if we actually saw Holland’s character train self-control over his thoughts (so that he could weaponize the images he can conjure up) instead of just having several scenes where he repeats his name over and over again.

Ultimately, this feels like a perfect example of a film that, on paper, should work (and maybe even be a hit) but which fell apart on multiple fronts once people started working on the film. I was worried that perhaps the film’s central gimmick would be its downfall, but, even though the gimmick has some untapped potential, I actually think it’s the best thing about the movie. I really wanted to like this film, but, unfortunately, Doug Liman’s Chaos Walking is a bit of a dud, all things considered.

4.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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